The First Step for Iowa Democrats

Julie Stauch is a candidate for Iowa Democratic Party chair with a lot of experience on Democratic campaigns. -promoted by desmoinesdem

“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.” JP Morgan

How do you begin to get an understanding of what is working and what is not working with an organization the size and scope of the Iowa Democratic Party? One way is to start with thematic analysis, an anecdotal way to gather information from within a group of people. How does it work? You ask the same questions of each person in a one-on-one conversation. Then you listen for common themes, new ideas, and where you have the kind of consensus that makes implementing change easier.

Since the election I’ve spoken with thirty-three individual Iowa Democratic activists from all across the state, asking each person the same four questions:
1. What are the problems facing the Iowa Democratic Party?
2. What are the opportunities?
3. What would a successful Iowa Democratic Party look like?
4. What are the obstacles between your vision of success and where we are right now?

The good news is that there’s a tremendous amount of consensus on the problems and opportunities.

Problems. We need to revitalize our county parties, clearly articulate what we stand for as Democrats, focus on recruiting and candidate development before people get into a race, deal with infrastructure and institutional problems, raise money from a variety of different sources, and do a better job of meeting people where they are so they don’t feel disenfranchised. One county chair pointed out that our Democratic culture is a better fit for most of the Republicans, but we have to focus on the things that impact their lives. In other words, meet them where they are.

Opportunities. While it’s distressing for some to say, one of the key opportunities comes from the election sweep. We can no longer fall back and depend upon elected leaders to shore up our weaknesses, which means we have an opportunity to face and fix those weaknesses. Growth was a key word in every description – grow the fundraising base to include more low dollar donors, grow how we engage activists to include organic growth as compared with the top-down, forced growth that happens in campaign season. We need to return organizing to the local level by empowering and supporting local leaders. We need to provide ways for people to move up the ladder of engagement through thoughtful leadership recruitment and development. Our message and brand need to fit Iowa. The Republican elected leaders are going to overreach at every level (state and national). We need to be prepared to expose the Republicans when they mistreat average Iowans. We can use their actions to expand our base, but only if we’re prepared. Voter demographics are changing, which means there are places where we had no opportunity before that now are showing great promise, and traditional areas which have always been strongly Democratic are now weakening. We must be flexible and adaptive.

Success. Universally, descriptions of success included having an engaged and empowered grassroots that feels connected all across the state, with a clear, vibrant message that supports our connectivity. Strong, vital fundraising in each of the 104 party organizations within and including the Iowa Democratic Party is a key factor to success. We need a strong diverse staff, which meant both identity diversity as well as geographic diversity. Tangible results means we need to win more elections. And a couple people indicated that a strategic plan with clear mission statement, goals and tactics would be very helpful.

Obstacles. Money and the ability to raise money were the most commonly described obstacles, along with the divide in the State Central Committee. An interesting phenomenon occurred in this interview process, one I’ve never encountered in any other similar situation. People interviewed in the first 10 days expressed great dismay and concern over whether or not we could achieve party unity. The level of concern about this problem dropped in the last days of interviewing from one of the top problems to still a problem, but not as overwhelming as it sounded in the first days.

Perhaps more important than the actual answers to the questions were the feelings people expressed. Our most engaged activists feel as though they are not heard, using terms like disrespected, unappreciated, and under utilized, which has them doubting whether or not they want to stay engaged. Those who are new to the party or the younger first time activists view this as a form of personal disrespect and rejection, when in fact every person interviewed expressed some form of these feelings. One of the people who has been highly engaged in past elections indicated at the start of our conversation that he realized he could have done more and thought someone would have said, “Hey, we need you to do…” and utilize his experience to help solve problems. In the tone of a personal vow, he told me that he will never again wait for a call to help.

Part of the frustration expressed was best articulated by several different rural county chairs who indicated that they couldn’t get anyone to return their calls or answer their questions. One chair asked for, “a phone number to a particular person who will answer my call and help me in my area.”

One of the most fascinating pieces of information came in a conversation with a county chair who, along with eight other Democratic county chairs, met following the 2014 election and wrote a paper on what they need to do differently to succeed. The chair sent me a copy of the document they developed in 2014. Everything they identified following the 2014 election matched the list points that have been generated here and in other conversations since Election Day 2016. Just another reason to listen to activists all over the state.

The real question for us to face now is not what do we need to do, but how will we do it and who can best lead us in building a vibrant, effective Iowa Democratic Party. I look forward to participating in this important discussion.

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